Featured image photo credit: BiblioteKarin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Do you love strategy games that use collectible resources and abilities to create powerful, competition-smashing chain reactions? Then you, my friend, are a fan of the engine-building genre.
As one of the best engine-building board games around, Concordia presents players with endless opportunities to think strategically and outwit their opponents. It also scales up or down for different group sizes, and additional maps are available for a ton of replay value.
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- Best Engine-Building Board Games in 2021
- Age 8+
- Ages 10+
- Ages 12+
- 10. Best for Resource Management – Underwater Cities
- 11. Best Journey Through the Old West – Great Western Trail
- 12. Best Territory Development Game – Terra Mystica
- 13. Best for Long-Term Strategy – Gaia Project
- 14. Best Farming Game – Agricola
- 15. Best Multi-Genre Game – Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure
- Ages 13+
- Ages 14+
- What to Consider When Buying an Engine-Building Board Game
- Frequently Asked Questions
Best Engine-Building Board Games in 2021
1. Best Overall – Concordia
Concordia is a mentally engaging strategy game fit into a very unassuming package. Rather than clash with their opponents, players must take their time and think several turns ahead to squash the competition — much like a game of chess.
Set in the Roman Empire, players take the helm of dynasties as they set out to accumulate wealth and power. Most of Concordia’s gameplay focuses on setting up relationships and, eventually, trade routes with the region’s outlying cities.
The original Concordia comes with a dual-sided board. One side features a large map for up to 5 players. The other bears a slightly smaller map for up to 4 players.
Speaking of the game board, maps are a key component of Concordia. There are over ten additional boards available as expansions. For updated gameplay, Concordia: Salsa also includes a few new mechanics.
2. Best for Multi-Dimensional Strategy – Terraforming Mars
The vast majority of engine-building board games isolate player resources from each other. But in Terraforming Mars, players must coordinate with their opponents to progress the game.
It’s important to note that Terraforming Mars is not a cooperative game. While players, stepping into the roles of space-colonizing corporations, rely on each other to make advancements in their respective fields, everyone is also trying to accrue the most points to win.
Actual gameplay consists of drafting or buying project cards and allocating resources. The main game board houses resources and terraforming opportunities for players to compete over. Every player also maintains an individual board with their personal resources.
If you enjoy the game’s concept but struggle with the long playtime, the Prelude expansion streamlines things without oversimplifying them. For players who prefer super-dense, long sessions with tons of strategy, the Turmoil expansion adds a layer of political control to the base game.
3. Best Budget Option – Puerto Rico
Released almost 20 years ago, Puerto Rico predates the recent board game renaissance by quite a lot. But there’s a reason avid gamers are still reaching for this engine-building board game today.
The theme is one that has been rehashed by newer games time-and-time again — but (in most cases) Puerto Rico was the original. Players are tasked with gaining economic power in the New World, starting with a single plantation.
Gameplay is surprisingly simple and is actually one of the game’s greatest assets. Instead of struggling to keep up with complicated rules, new players are able to jump right into crafting their own winning strategies.
While Puerto Rico is primarily a role-selection game, top strategies revolve around investing in the right buildings. Certain buildings permit players to bend the rules, often to great advantage. The Puerto Rico: Expansions 1 & 2 set adds over twenty buildings to the core game.
4. Best City-Planning Simulator – Suburbia
Despite its seemingly innocuous title and box art, Suburbia is the perfect game for the cynical at heart. With that said, it’s also appropriate (and simple enough to play) for younger players.
Throughout the game, each player’s goal is to grow the largest suburb with the most residents. Things get weird — or jarringly realistic, depending on how you look at it — when players are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of allowing a radioactive waste site to crop up next to a residential neighborhood.
Suburbia’s gameplay is intriguing in that nothing is laid out ahead of time. Every player starts with the exact same blank slate, and it is entirely up to them how to grow the ideal suburban paradise.
For fans of the original game, Suburbia Inc is the must-have expansion. With this expansion, players can set aside residential development in favor of incorporation. It also introduces new goals, varying strategies even more between players.
5. Best in Graphic Design – Wingspan
For anyone with a finger on the pulse of board game trends, the mention of Wingspan won’t come as any surprise. Just over a year since its release, this fan-favorite engine-building game about ornithology — the study of birds — is still going strong.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to this game’s popularity is its gorgeous illustrations and cute game pieces (including a 3D birdhouse and miniature eggs). It’s also quite lightweight for an engine-builder game, making it great for families.
In Wingspan, players use dice and cards to discover new bird species in three separate habitats. As your birding collection grows, so do the special effects that can trigger with each turn.
6. Best Intro to Dice-Building – Dice Forge
As part of an up-and-coming tabletop genre called dice-building, Dice Forge offers a unique experience for players. First and foremost, the dice in this board game have removable faces. As the game progresses, players replace their personal dice faces with better options to increase their odds of winning.
The easiest way to explain Dice Forge’s gameplay is by comparing it to a deck-building game. Just replace the randomness of drawing cards with the randomness of rolling the dice.
But if dice-rolling isn’t your favorite gaming mechanism, this engine-builder might be best left on the shelf. Since dice play a central role in this title, players can expect to make dozens upon dozens of rolls each game.
The Dice Forge lineup includes several expansions, but the most noteworthy is Dice Forge: Rebellion. This expansion adds two game modes to the base rules, accompanied by new dice faces and cards.
7. Best Two-Player Game – 7 Wonders Duel
Countless board games can be played with just two players, but few are designed with this limitation specifically in mind. When the developers of 7 Wonders Duel set out to reinvent a standard multi-player game, they managed to make something many players think is better than the original.
If it’s not already clear, 7 Wonders Duel is for two players — only two players. In this game, players compete to build a powerful civilization by drafting cards. Each type of card behaves differently, and players can implement several strategies (such as covering other cards from their opponent’s view).
At its core, 7 Wonders Duel is an engine-building game and if you don’t play it like one, you’re bound to suffer. Card interactions are crucial to winning, so spreading your resources too thin will cripple your civilization's power down the road.
The Pantheon expansion adds several ancient gods to the game, which players can earn favor with at the start to access big rewards later. Keep in mind, expansions built for the original won’t work with the two-player version.
8. Best Variety of Expansions – Catan
Formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, CATAN is one of the big names that started the recent surge in popularity of tabletop gaming. In many circles, this game is as ubiquitous with the concept of board games as Monopoly.
On the surface, those familiar with the game might not think of it as an engine-builder, but CATAN does include some minor elements of the mechanic. Primarily, the collection of various resources to then cash into roads and settlements.
If you enjoy CATAN at its core, there are dozens of expansions, extensions, and alternative versions available. For the biggest changes to gameplay, Cities & Knights and Explorers & Pirates are typically the best bang for your buck.
9. Best for Families – Splendor
Many games incorporate a handful of mechanics, letting players pick and choose what to focus on. Splendor is an engine-builder and little else, making it an ideal introduction to the mechanic for both new and experienced players.
The whole goal of Splendor is to draft development cards and earn prestige (or victory) points. Players use gem tokens to purchase new cards which, when combined in various ways, interact with each other to generate even more gems and fulfill noble card requirements for points.
Splendor is easy to learn and play, especially since players can see their opponents’ cards. Winning the game is a bit harder, though, with players choosing between massing wealth quickly or playing the long-con for a winning combo later on.
If your family enjoys the original, the Cities of Splendor expansion offers four modules to mix-and-match with the basic rules. This is a great investment for replayability or for upping the game’s difficulty as young players hone their skills.
10. Best for Resource Management – Underwater Cities
Plenty of board games explore the idea of colonizing far-off planets. In Underwater Cities, though, players turn their attention to Earth’s very own oceans. While the main board holds resources and action spots, each player also maintains their own colony board with domes, connectors, and upgrades.
Underwater Cities builds tension by requiring players to discard all but three cards from their hand each turn. Expend the wrong card too early, and you could lose out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But holding onto not-yet-valuable cards will also eat up most of your hand potential.
If you enjoy the base game, the Underwater Cities: New Discoveries expansion is worth checking out. Along with a streamlined setup option and new mechanics, this expansion includes high-quality upgrades to some of the great game components from the original set (most notably, layered colony boards with cutouts to hold smaller pieces).
11. Best Journey Through the Old West – Great Western Trail
Don’t let the dramatic sepia box art fool you. Great Western Trail is a game about cattle ranching, not carriage robberies and saloon shootouts. To successfully manage your herd of cattle, though, you’re going to need to employ a heck of a lot of board game mechanics.
Cattle cards are important for building up your herd and unlocking new abilities. These cards are where a lot of the game’s engine-building comes into play, with more valuable cattle becoming available as player resources grow.
Whether you see it as a fault or an asset, Great Western Trail relies on a ton of small components. On the central board, players will need to keep track of train and player miniatures, buildings, and an array of staff members.
With the Great Western Trail: Rails to the North Expansion, the game’s railroad element is expanded on with a new mechanic. With this mechanic, players can explore (and unlock powerful bonuses from) small towns just off the main railway system.
12. Best Territory Development Game – Terra Mystica
Designed with classical Euro-style mechanics and components, Terra Mystica is a straightforward land-development game that is surprisingly satisfying to master. It’s also a great game for introducing basic engine-building concepts.
In Terra Mystica, players control one of over a dozen factions competing for land and resources. Each faction has a specific type of terrain it will settle, minimizing competition. Instead, it’s your faction’s proximity to other factions that will either help or hurt your long-term strategy.
Another interesting part of Terra Mystica is the inclusion of four religious cults in which players can invest resources. Doing so unlocks new abilities and bonuses that can be a major asset in the game’s final moments.
While the core game has plenty to offer, the Fire & Ice and Merchants of the Seas expansions bring more factions, terrain types, and rules to the table. In the latter expansion, players also gain access to a shipyard component.
13. Best for Long-Term Strategy – Gaia Project
It’s rare that a board game’s sequel is as popular as its predecessor. In the case of Gaia Project, created as a reimagining of Terra Mystica, many tabletop gamers actually like it better than the “original.”
The core concept of Gaia Project remains the same as Terra Mystica. Players each control a faction, but instead of home terrain, each faction lives on a different type of planet.
The game adds some variable territories with Gaia and transdimensional planets. Gaia planets are essentially wild cards — any faction can claim them if they spend the right resources. Meanwhile, transdimensional planets can be claimed but are uninhabitable until a player has made enough progress. But when that progress is made, said player could suddenly find themselves winning the game.
Gaia Project offers some quality-of-life updates to the Terra Mystica format. The game board is rearranged to give players a clearer picture of their progress. It is also modular, opening up the opportunity for different arrangements and replayability.
14. Best Farming Game – Agricola
In the midst of games based on war and space travel, there’s something to be said about the quaint simplicity of a tabletop farming simulator. In Agricola, players oversee a family-run farm with the ultimate goal of attaining more land, livestock, and viable crops than their opponents.
Remember, this is a family-run operation. To staff their growing farm, players must also expand their family. This means diverting resources to a larger home and other necessities as well.
Fortunately for English-speakers, most of the game’s original German expansions have been bundled together and translated. The Goodies Expansion includes four new card decks (side note: one of these decks is all about farm-based alien encounters!). The Farmers of the Moor Expansion is a more straightforward add-on with new livestock and home maintenance mechanics.
If you have a group of six players, Agricola is one of a handful of games with a dedicated expansion for an additional person. It also includes a few general upgrades with in-game occupations and themed cards.
15. Best Multi-Genre Game – Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure
Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure combines deck-building with the linear progress of a dungeon crawl. As players maneuver around the game board, they use their slowly growing deck to battle monsters and discover powerful treasures.
One of the most unique components of this game is the “clank” meter. The meter, along with the wooden blocks that players use to fill it, represents how much noise each character has made while exploring the dungeon. Make too much noise and the sleeping dragon inside will wake up, spelling death for the offending player.
Since nobody wants to die at the hands of a grumpy dragon, the game’s main goal is to grab an Artifact and make it back to the exit. To win the game, however, players must also earn more points than their opponents with collected loot.
Fans of Clank! can explore new parts of the dungeon with one of the expansion sets. The franchise also includes a few alternative standalone games, including one set in space and a legacy version that lets players enjoy a multi-session campaign.
16. Best Deck-Building Game – Dominion
Pure deck-building games are something most players either love or hate, but there’s no denying the role these titles play in modern tabletop gaming. As perhaps the most well-known example from this genre, Dominion is the perfect example of how an engine-builder can be sleek and easy-to-understand.
If you’re unfamiliar with the deck-building concept, each player starts out with the same handful of cards as their deck. Each turn, players use these cards to buy new, better ones to beef up their deck. Over time, and with the right strategy, a player’s deck can become full of powerful chain reactions.
For repeat players, Dominion offers tons of different strategies and card combos to explore. The core game includes 500 cards, many of which won’t make an appearance in every game.
Dominion’s replayability is only helped by its long list of expansions. The most popular expansion is Intrigue, which just adds new cards to the game. However, expansions like Seaside fundamentally change the game’s strategies with cards that last longer than one turn.
17. Best Co-op Board Game – Spirit Island
In Spirit Island, players aren’t competing to conquer the largest swath of land or amass the most natural resources. Instead, they take on the roles of powerful spirits bent on protecting the island from invaders.
While Spirit Island incorporates a bunch of classic engine-building mechanics, it does so in a way that feels intuitive to the game as a whole. The spirits start out fairly weak, and it’s up to each player to decide which power-gaining path will lead to victory.
Spirit Island is also one of the only big engine-building titles with fully cooperative gameplay. This adds an extra layer of strategy — needing to coordinate with other spirits — but also takes some of the pressure off of newcomers to the genre.
There are two expansions currently available that expand even further on the intriguing Spirit Island universe, Branch & Claw and Jagged Earth. Both sets add new spirits, powers, maps, and invaders to the base game for more variety and replayability.
18. Best Thematic Experience – Everdell
If you’re the type of player who believes theme is just as important as actual gameplay, then Everdell should absolutely be on your list of must-try games. The game components are undeniably gorgeous, but this isn’t a case of good graphic design carrying so-so mechanics.
Stripped bare, this game is just like any city-developer that uses worker placement and engine-building to ramp up players’ power. Layered over these mechanics, though, is not a world of human denizens but one of adorable critters and forest diplomacy.
Everdell’s design doesn’t end at the box or card artwork, either. The game board is a multi-layered, popup tree with clear organization and guidelines to keep less-experienced players on track.
Players can expand their Everdell experience with expansions like Pearlbrook, Spirecrest, and Bellfaire. Each set offers something different, from a new biome to revamped game mechanics, so there’s something for every player type.
19. Best One-of-a-Kind Components – Gizmos
The world of tabletop gaming offers plenty of mechanisms for random chance. But what if, instead of using dice or a deck of cards, you could use a 3D marble dispenser to divvy out valuable resources? In Gizmos, that’s exactly what happens.
Gizmos offers a simple premise. Players are scientists competing to create the most elaborate machine. The game’s marbles are resources — each machine costs a certain number of colored marbles.
Of course, building machines isn’t just an abstract theme. As players put together their own “gizmos,” they also unlock abilities that progress the game. Gizmos is an engine-building game in every possible sense of the word.
20. Best Immersive World-Building – Scythe
If dense gameplay and immersive world-building are what you look for in a board game, Scythe is a great example of engine-building as a secondary mechanic. While the game’s end goal is maximum area control, setting up a highly efficient workforce will lead to big rewards later in the game.
Each game of Scythe relies on several moving parts. But they nearly all relate to engine-building in one way or another. Whether you’re investing in new mechs or boosting your access to valuable resources, every choice plays a role in your faction’s eventual success or failure.
In a unique twist, the publisher has also released a kid-friendly version of the game called My Little Scythe. It features simplified mechanics borrowed from the original game, and the war-torn factions are replaced by cartoon animals. This game is an excellent resource for parents who want to broaden their children’s board game experience.
What to Consider When Buying an Engine-Building Board Game
Number of Players
Perhaps the most important factor in selecting a new game is the number of players you have available. Few games can be played with more or fewer players than listed on the box, so there’s little wiggle room if your group size doesn’t match up.
Expansions are a valuable resource for groups that are both too large and too small. Not all expansions affect the number of compatible players, however, so it’s important to check each title.
Nearly all mainstream board games include a suggested age range. You can find this range on the box, usually next to the recommended number of players.
While these age suggestions are never hard-and-fast rules, they exist for a reason. Games with a higher age range generally require skills like reading, strategic thinking, and resource management.
Use your best judgment when selecting games for younger children who may or may not be able to keep up with complex mechanics.
Some games also use their suggested age ranges to denote potentially inappropriate content. This is more common with casual party games, like Cards Against Humanity, than with traditional tabletop games. Still, it’s something to keep in mind when shopping for a new title for family game night.
Since engine-building is more popular in medium- or heavy-weight titles, expansions are the norm. This is great, especially for avid fans who want to explore different strategies or mechanisms within the world of their favorite game.
In most cases, it’s a good idea to be familiar with a game’s core set before investing in expansions. Some expansions can be played without also owning the original game. However, this is rare.
Along with adding new game pieces or mechanics, many expansions can affect the number of players, average playtime, or even suggested age range for a game.
If you’re someone who enjoys the mental stimulation of board games even without a group of fellow players, look for games that also offer a solo-play mode. These games can be played like a game of Solitaire — instead of competing against other players, you must compete against the game itself to win.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an engine-building tabletop game?
Engine-building as a concept is difficult to describe, but you’ve probably encountered the mechanic in several games without even realizing it.
In an engine-builder, players collect resources that slowly build on each other throughout the game. These resources become more efficient, unlock more powerful abilities, or generate more valuable resources as the game progresses. This is the “engine.”
Engine-building games come in all shapes and sizes. Some are incredibly dense, while others are remarkably simple. If you start out the game with nothing and slowly accrue more and more abilities and resources as the game goes on, there’s a good chance you’re playing an engine-builder.
How do I find other engine-building games to try?
Despite the prevalence of engine-building as a mechanic, few publishers actually market their games as such. This can make it difficult for new fans of the genre to find new and exciting titles to try out.
While engine-building is rarely used in marketing lingo, there are a few terms that almost always overlap with this mechanic.
Deck-, dice-, and pool-building are extremely common and make some of the best engine-building games. Tableau-building is another genre that’s been gaining recognition within the tabletop community and is essentially a subset of engine-building.
What is a tableau?
You might have noticed that more and more recently released games include a small board for each player to place cards, dice, tokens, and other resources on for their own personal use. This is a tableau.
Of course, not all of such games include a physical board for each player. If a game asks players to allocate an area on the table for placing, it might be a tableau-building game.
To determine whether or not a game uses this mechanic, you just need to ask yourself if the resources played on your tableau interact with each other. If they build on each other to grant new abilities or resources, then you definitely have a tableau-style engine-builder on your hands!
Last update on 2021-02-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API